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Water crisis looms for Westlands farmers

District explores contingency plans to deal with water shortages

Bob Krauter
Capital Press California Editor 6/14/07

FIVE POINTS - Westside farmers got a ray of hope in water news today, but a dark cloud stills hangs over 600,000 acres of cropland in the Westlands Water District because of limited water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham, speaking to 200 farmers at a special meeting of his board of directors today in Five Points, warned that if delta water exports remain constrained to help threatened delta smelt, it could imperil thirsty crops in the sprawling district, which is served by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project.

Birmingham, addressing farmers at Westland's Five Points office shop on the first day of triple-digit temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley, praised the action by the Bureau of Reclamation to activate two pumps at the agency's Jones Pumping Plant near Tracy. But he questioned why state-operated pumps remain mostly silent.

"The state voluntarily made the decision to cut exports. The point the state has been trying to make is this reduction is not going to impact anyone," Birmingham said. "The reality is it is already impacting people. Our water supply is reduced as a result of it, not directly, but indirectly, and we are at the point where we might have to start imposing involuntarily curtailments on deliveries to our farmers."

State-operated pumps at the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant were idled May 31 after populations of delta smelt, a tiny threatened fish species, fell to historic-low levels. State pumps in the delta Sunday increased pumping to an average of 400 cubic-feet per second, but the reduced level of pumping has created pressure on water supplies behind San Luis Dam, which serves both State Water Project and CVP customers.

The Bureau of Reclamation has to draw down its supplies from the San Luis Reservoir to ease water delivery commitments. Currently, the reservoir is rapidly dropping at the maximum allowed 20,000 acre-feet per day, and Bureau officials are exceeding the CVP's normal 48 percent share of that water. State Water Project contractors could ask the CVP to curtail its excess draws from San Luis, which would further crimp supplies to Westlands farmers.

Ron Milligan, manager of Central Valley Operations for the Bureau of Reclamation, told farmers that his agency now has three delta pumps moving 2,500 cubic-feet of water per second into the CVP system. Milligan said the absence of delta smelt near the Tracy fish screen gave officials confidence they could start the additional pumps. He hopes to incrementally increase pumping in the next few weeks to match rising demands and reach full pumping by the first of July.

"There are a lot of actions to keep water use down, but as the weather gets warmer and crops need more water, demands will go up," Milligan said. "We are being as flexible as we possibly can with the project. We will take every opportunity if we find more water."

Milligan said federal officials have been purchasing water from the San Joaquin River at a cost of $1 million per week to help augment short water supplies. State and federal water officials have the authority to pump delta water into the California Aqueduct, but a Fresno federal court judge last month found flaws in the biological opinions developed to help protect smelt from the operations of the delta pumps operated by the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Milligan assured Westlands farmers that the CVP will do everything it can to meet its commitments to deliver 50 percent of contract allotments to its customers this year and satisfy U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger's order for the government agencies to fix flaws in the biological opinions on the smelt.

"My approach with the pumping is I will do everything possible to keep from having a curtailment of deliveries short of having to break a court order and being in violation of the Endangered Species Act," Milligan said. "That is a pretty high threshold."

Milligan expects the curtailed delta pumping to be "finite" and as water temperatures warm in the central south delta, smelt will migrate toward colder water because temperatures above 77 degrees are lethal to juvenile smelt.

Birmingham told farmers that the Westland Water District has requested supplemental water from several sources, but because of the lengthy suspension of delta pumping and lingering uncertainty about the future of pumping, the prospects of getting help elsewhere appears bleak.

"We are reaching the point where we may not be able to recover the water that has been lost. I suspect there are people in this room who are angry," Birmingham said. "I am very angry about the situation we are in because it is a situation that we predicted."

Birmingham said Westlands officials for years have warned government water officials that threats to delta smelt are many, including toxic discharges from towns near the delta that could harm the fish or diminish their food supply. Invasive species are also thought to be a serious threat to smelt, he said.

"Unfortunately, the whole focus of recovery of delta smelt is on limiting exports," he said.

Westlands will be forced to consider contingency options that could include involuntary curtailment of water deliveries to farmers. Action on district recommendations could come next Monday when the Westlands Water District board meets in Fresno.

Jim Beecher, a Five Points farmer, will be closely monitoring the situation as he has 2,700 acres of cotton at risk.

"Depending on how the forecast changes over the very near future we'll need to make a decision on irrigating cotton probably by the end of June or early July based on where our crop is right now," Beecher said. "If the water situation continues to go down the road it has been going down the last three or four weeks, it is going to be very difficult to justify continuing our acreage as planted."

Birmingham and other members of the Westlands board urged farmers Wednesday to contact their state and federal lawmakers to ask them to get involved in solving problems related to water operations in the delta.

"We may not have the crisis today, but we will have a crisis," said Jean Sagouspe, Westlands board president. "The delta needs to be fixed and everyone of you need to go to your state representatives, federal representatives and demand that this be fixed. Because one day, you will have a shutdown. This is a wakeup call and we all need to recognize it."

Westlands Water District serves customers in western Fresno and Kings counties.

Bob Krauter is based in Sacramento. His e-mail address is bkrauter@capitalpress.com
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